At the best of times, prison is a traumatic experience filled with stress, danger and glimpses into the darker regions of the human heart. The rules and policies of the instutions which house those confined to prison are supposed to operate as a mitigating balance to these negative forces. They are meant to restrain the harmful aspects of human impluse and prejudice. However even a brief inspection of the policies of MDOC reveals to us an environment which intentionally cultivates racial division and animus.
It starts with the hiring practices. The MDOC advertises for new applicants in publications that service predominately white rural areas. Resulting in a staff that is 83% white, composed of 20% legacy hires who’s fathers, grandfathers, or other relatives arranged for thier jobs(aka nepotism). Secondly, few if any of the prisons are located within convenient commutting distance of the major cities in the state, making it necessary for inner-city applcants to either relocate to all white areas or face daily commutes that could represent hours of travel time. Facilities that are located near large populations, are often the cause of those populations being so large because ancillary industries have moved into the area to feed off that correctional facility. Lastly, work programs inside prisons seem to be the only arena in the country (other than insurance actuarial tables) where it is legal to discriminate along racial lines.
Setting aside for a moment the gross imbalance in prison population numbers and what they indicate about the court systems which feed them, I would like to focus on the classification headings by which Michigan’s prisoners are sorted for the purposes of employment and represention in prisoner interactions with the administration, into two groups White and Non-White. It might astonish the public to learn that despite the fact that they account for less than twenty percent of the prison population, fully one half of skilled work assignments are reserved exclusively for white prisoners. The remainder of the jobs are divided between the NON-WHITE prisoners. This includes, hispanics, Asians, Orientials, Arabs and blacks (who alone account for nearly sixty-five percent of the prison population). This policy is known as “racial balancing”.
The division of the prison population into only two groups (I.e. white or nonwhite) is a bold and offensive statement of white supremacy. It puts everyone on notice that the only factor of importance to them is a person’s whiteness. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, Asian or Hispanic, you are only judged by you’re lack of whiteness. You are defined not by who you are but by who you’re not. You are judged by the fact of your “otherness”. According to this policy all other races are interchangeable except whites. In fact the interests of white prisoners are so important to them that they’ve structured their policies to ensure that those interests are represented in any discussions between prisoners and staff regardless of the demographic make up of the population. In point of fact, if they are 20% of the population and people of color are 80%, then they are saying we’ve gone from being considered equal to 3/5 of a human being during slavery to being considered equal to 1/4 of a human being as prisoners.
For the purposes of this article we will define racisim as; “The instutionalized practice of confering advantages to one group over another solely on the basis of race.” With this definition in mind let’s examine an example of this “Racial balancing policy” in action, The single largest work force in the Department of Corrections is the Food Services assignment. In most prisons the jobs are split between two or three shifts. Each area of the kitchen has two skilled positions: 1. A Lead worker who works five days a week for skilled pay. 2. A Relief Lead who fills in for the lead worker on his two off days and in many (but not all) prisons he works the remaining three days of his work week at semi-skilled pay. This of course means that if you give the lead to the white prisoner and the relief lead to the non-white prisoner, you have thechnically given them both “skilled jobs”, while in practice you have given the white prisoner an income 60% higher than the “non-white” prisoner. Add to this the posibiity that the non-white in question could be latino or asian and the net result being that on paper you have been racially fair while in practice you have neatly marginalized the overwhelming majority of the prison population This is a common practice in the facilities in the Upper Peninsula.